SAN ANTONIO — “You Won’t Be Alone” runs 108 minutes, but you won’t need more than 10 or 15 to know whether this intimately scaled story of wandering Macedonian witches is one whose grace you’re willing to look for beyond its tonally disfigured exterior.
I can hardly blame any viewer who isn’t. After all, this is a movie whose punk-metal poster and not-entirely-accurate comparisons to Robert Eggers’ “The Vvitch” belie a gentle narrative mood, to the point that many will take it as accidental self-parody when the enchantress who sets this movie into motion – burned and scarred all over – candidly stuffs herself with a dead wolf’s guts in order to take on its appearance. “You Won’t Be Alone” steadfastly defangs expectations that it’s a film of white-knuckle spooks; there’s some biting in the movie’s grislier moments, to be sure, but writer-director Goran Stolevski's disarmingly tranquil feature debut concerns itself primarily with touch, texture and the most immediately tactile of life’s questions.
Appropriately enough, the tell-tale sign of witchery here are the blackened talons of its main character, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), putting her increasingly in danger of being discovered the more she extends a hand to feel her way through the world, and her place in it. Let this be a warning, then, or perhaps a reassurance: “You Won’t Be Alone” is a boldly, beautifully, bloodily rendered horror-drama that’s far more drama than horror (at least, its horrors are almost purely human), and which flips the script on humanity’s relationship with folklore. Much in the same way that the sight of blood here signals new life, it’s Stolevski's commitment to looking at the world through the eyes of that which we imagine lurking in its shadows that grants it a particular poignancy.
I mean that literally, to an extent. The movie begins in the shadows of a dark cave, where Nevena grows up in isolation after being marked by Old Maid Maria, a feared “wolf-eateress,” as a baby. Her mother subsequently hides her away, but time and loneliness do funny things to a person, and when Maria returns to collect her years later, Nevena is a feral thing with much to discover—and discover she does, once she re-emerges into sunlight and rural 19th-century society with an existential chip on her shoulder. What to make of the world when she’s been away from it for so long? More urgently, what to make of the world when those living in it could jump to burn her at the stake at any moment?
“You Won’t Be Alone” carries itself with a dark beauty as Nevena tries to find answers. Heavy on montage and light on dramatic urgency, it places potent emphasis on the natural world, and on the world as a place that robs us of our natural selves. Part of what makes Stolevski’s film so beguiling is how it seems to source its despair and luminous curiosity from the same rays of sunshine or rocky streams; the personal implications of Nevena’s journey are dizzying to consider even before she approaches a countryside settlement, her caution overpowered by her curiosity. “What isn’t strange, when you think about it?” she wonders to herself, and in the moment you’re convinced this being of little practical knowledge actually has all the answers.
That Nevena is also a shapeshifter gives the movie’s exploration of identity a profound dimension, organically and confidently turning “You Won’t Be Alone” into a study on gender roles, sexual dynamics, and the shifting lines of freedom that come with being a wife, an man, a child. It also fashions the movie into an exciting acting exercise, as several actors attempt to replicate the same wide-eyed, pure-hearted, grim-fated look established by Klimoska. Noomi Rapace is the most notable face in an enthralling (and fairly brief) performance that subverts the iron-willed characters she’s played before.
The sound design is evocative in these scenes when Nevena essentially foregoes one life for another – now there’s a heady idea that justifies the inevitable comparisons to Terrence Malick – and there’s likely some intention, however thinly sketched, to the movie’s connection between violence and rebirth. Stolevski's imagery-based storytelling is often mesmerizing, but there’s also no getting used to moments when a nude witch, her mouth smeared in blood, is digging into another dead animal; there’s only so much the movie’s lyrical movements can withstand.
That ambiguity results in some lulls here and there, and while it can never be said that the film’s pacing skips, more passive viewers might completely miss when “You Won’t Be Alone” traipses briefly to the past to tell the story of Old Maid Maria. It proves to be a vital sequence, providing a keystone perspective and underscoring this tale as one about the kaleidoscope of earthly experience. The film’s final encounter is its most emotionally piercing; in Maria’s eyes, it’s strange that Nevena has been able to get on as well as she does in “the real world,” with all its implicit threats and dangers and suspicions. But what isn’t strange, when you think about it?
"You Won't Be Alone" is rated R for violence and gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, and sexual assault. It's now out in some San Antonio theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert, Anamaria Marinca, Sara Klimoska
Written and directed by Goran Stolevski
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